Thursday, August 11, 2011

Alcohol, Part 3A: Irrelevant Personal Anecdotes

I became hooked on coffee at thirteen, at an ur-Starbucks called Ozzie's four addresses down the street from my high school. It was convenient and cheap and seemed cool. My kid dislike of bitter-tasting things was steadily worn down by 8 oz. slugs of milky, sugary hazelnut three or four or five times a week.

In time the coffee became blacker and stronger, the paper cups became taller, and breaks in the routine caused a strange new discomfort--like being too hot and too cold at the same time, or being ravenously hungry but still on the edge of vomiting. Until I had coffee each morning, two extremes I couldn't define and never knew I contained played unwinnable tug-of-war with my inner peace. Suddenly, nothing before noon was more important than making this go away.

I quit once, senior year of college. On the ground floor of the high-rise across from the identical high-rise where I lived was a Wawa (a marginally classier 7-Eleven, if you've never lived or had the 2AM munchies in the lower Northeast Corridor). There was never a good reason not to get coffee at Wawa. After four years in Pennsylvania, 20 oz. Dark Roasts were the pillars supporting my every day.

One Sunday morning, late morning, I staggered towards my fix, out the front door and into a pastel dream of April. The obligation to study or exercise or do anything but play Civilization III until it was time to call Papa John's in ten hours blew away with the cherry blossom petals. Climbing the concrete, gum-studded Wawa steps felt like floating on marshmallows, and the just-hung poster on the shop's front door may as well have had golden rays shooting from it in every direction:


The only thing that filled me with more joy than the fact of four more ounces was the implication that maybe one day there would be a quart.

I scurried back to my room with my giant coffee like the rat who scored the once-bitten soft pretzel off the sidewalk. After excitedly setting it and the Sunday New York Times on my desk, I took two steps towards the kitchen with vague ideas about pancakes.

The hollow *thunk* followed by pizzicato drizzling noises behind me froze my hand as it began to reach for the cupboard. I knew what had happened--there was only one possibility--but I didn't want to look. It's easy to underestimate the surface area 24 oz. of liquid can have when holding it in a narrow paper cup. Suffice it to say that it can cover the average desk with mayhem to spare.

The fat newspaper got the worst of it, perhaps saving it from its probable fate of getting tossed Monday morning with only two sections opened. The rest of the slick wended around my computer keyboard and six stacks of books, mostly paperbacks. Months later I would contritely hide the coffee-mottled ones at the bottom of a library donation box. Cascades of Dark Roast fell to the floor, one via the sides of my computer tower.

Three minutes, panic and paper towels, and it was under control. I had ruined books, a $5 periodical, and probably my computer keyboard (a laptop would have been fuuuuuucked). Also, I STILL NEEDED COFFEE. In search of pity I sank to the rug, against the bony metal frame of my dormitory cot-bed and rubbed my eyes.

This was a time in my young adulthood when I was desperate to find symbolism if not synecdoche in everything, whether or not I really understood either. Everything in sight melted away except that 24 oz. cup. If it had been shorter, with a stronger center of gravity, it wouldn't have tipped over... even if I had carelessly placed it down with one edge on the Sunday paper. The monster-sized cup was the coffee addiction that had grown unchecked, as I had watched like a parent thrilled that my 6'7" 15 year-old is a basketball miracle, but quietly hoping he stops sprouting while still someone's definition of "normal".

Wawa had staged a proper intervention. If this didn't end here and now, the next spill would be much worse. There, on the floor, I quit coffee.

I went back out and bought a box of green tea, with its eastern promises of immortality and clean teeth. For lack of a kettle, I boiled water in my supermarket-issue saucepan and tentatively poured it over the round teabag. The steaming infusion became pale yellow, yellow, stopping just short of pea-colored. I waited for it to become darker and more electric like strong coffee, stirring and pressing the bag with a spoon as it became more apparent that this is how green tea looks.

The flavor was bizarre: mild, smoky, gamey, inconclusive. Nothing like the Ceylon and Earl Grey I sipped every few months and were my only yardsticks for tea. According to the box it contained a trace of caffeine, but my body was going to have to take my eyes' word for it--as usual, it didn't.

I was miserable. Breakfast seemed pointless, and out the window I saw clouds bum-rushing the sun. "While you're at it," I thought as I took a second palate-scalding of the strange brew, "quit drinking alcohol too."